Mastering disaster

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January 12, 2004 // UPDATED 2:31 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

From garbage-bag garments to three layers of duct tape, city firefighters prepare for terrorist attacks

An emergency medical response team arrives at a shopping center and finds three people down and motionless. According to the news anchor, the team realizes too late that this was no routine emergency.

Someone had left a bag with a nerve agent, killing not only shoppers, but first responders.

Roughly 60 members of the Minneapolis Fire Department watched the mock news clip, called "The Terror of Harford Mall," sitting in a second-floor Minneapolis Convention Center conference room.

Firefighters are first responders in medical emergencies, and the message was clear: terrorist attacks are not always immediately apparent, and survival hinges on early detection.

This is Part II of the Weapons of Mass Destruction training that all uniformed firefighters will receive. A federal grant paid for overtime necessary for the training -- roughly 12 hours for each of the roughly 360 uniformed fire fighters. (That's a total of approximately 4,300 staff hours, which would pay for three full-time fire fighters for a year.)

Led by deputy chiefs Ulysses Seal and John Fruetel, the training described targets and tactics, planning and personal safety. Firefighters sat in rows of tables as the chiefs went through a 200-slide presentation; it was fast-paced with few questions.

Seal told firefighters they are potential terrorist targets.

"Hitting us creates fear in the public," he said. Terrorists "want to delay rescue and fire suppression and instill fear in other responders. They have a good operational awareness of how we work."

As jarring as that might be, Seal acknowledged that some emergency personnel struggle with the training's relevance. "No one thinks this is going to happen to them," he said. "I've had some problems with people drifting off."

Several firefighters interviewed during break said firehouse chatter seldom revolved around possible terrorist attacks. Yet, as one said, "it's always in the back of your mind. This [training] is putting it there a little more."

3/30 and other rules

Seal touched on some obvious potential targets -- the Target Center, the Metrodome and the State Capitol, and some that may seem less obvious, such as the Mayo Clinic or the Blaine Sports Complex.

The training covered the rules to live by on chemical, biological, nuclear and explosive devices.

With a potential explosive device, for instance, first responders should discontinue radio use, Seal said. It could trigger the bomb. "Use hand signals or runners," he said.

For potential chemical or biological attacks, rescue operations follow the "3/30" rule, Fruetel said. Responders in protective equipment may enter a contaminated area for up to three minutes to look for "viable" victims -- and must leave if they find none. If viable victims are present, emergency responders may stay inside the hot zone for at most 30 minutes.

One of the few questions from a firefighter concerned "buddy taping."

The Fire Department began "buddy taping" training roughly 18 months ago. Before entering a contaminated area, firefighters help each other tape shut any openings in their personal protective equipment -- boots to pant cuffs, waist to shirt, jacket bottom to trousers and the trouser fly -- using triple layers of duct tape.

However, subsequent U.S. Army tests have shown little added benefit of buddy taping for first responders doing rapid rescue -- and it adds delays to rescue operations.

The firefighter wanted to know if buddy taping was optional.

Buddy taping "is still a tool," Seal said after the training. "You can still use it if you think it is appropriate. But there are more negatives than positives to using it for initial rapid rescue."

Decon and the garbage bag ad lib

The Fire Department has special decontamination trailers (or "decon" for short) that allow first responders to set up emergency showers for victims of a chemical or biological attack. The city also owns 1,000 sets of garments to clothe victims after they shower, Seal said.

Fruetel asked for a show of hands whether emergency responders at a chemical attack should have victims shower first, then disrobe -- or disrobe first, then shower. (The response was mixed, with some not voting.) The answer: disrobe first, then shower. Showering could further spread the chemical.

In a biological attack, the answer is the opposite, Seal said. If victims remove clothes first, bacteria stuck to the clothing could become airborne and spread. Showering first wets the clothes and reduces the risk of further exposure.

While the firefighters have many procedures to remember, they also will have to think creatively, Freutel said. For instance, emergency garments might not be on hand -- or they might need more than 1,000.

"If you have a hardware store available, grab all the garbage bags they got," Freutel said.

He referred to it as "urban harvesting."

In the middle of the training, a Fire Department official brought Seal a plastic trash bag of a different sort. Someone had left it at Fire Station 7, 2000 Franklin Ave. E.

At first, the trash bag appeared to be a prop -- the "what-do-you-do-with-a-suspicious-package" part of training. This was the real thing, however: a bagful of ranting from an antigovernment crank. Staff had examined the package, found it safe and Seal had it brought to the Convention Center.

"It ought to add a little wake-up value," he told the class.

He rifled through the contents, reading aloud some of it, but saying he could not repeat most of it. It has pornography, antigovernment messages, an upside-down flag (the distress signal), writing that said "Pray for obscene mail" and a writ of habeas corpus, Seal said, noting that the author had misspelled habeas corpus.

He eventually found a piece of mail with a name and address on it -- presumably the anonymous person who dropped it off -- earning an audience chuckle.

(Asked about the bag after training, Seal said the Fire Department typically turns such items over to the police. "It's usually mental health issues," he said. "If it is severe enough, we turn them over to county mental health so they can do an intervention.")

Oh, and one more thing

Seal and Fruetel reminded firefighters that a terrorist attack is also a crime scene. In addition to personal safety and saving victims, they needed to avoid damaging evidence when possible.

"We have carte blanche for life rescue," Seal said. "We have to minimize damage. It is just as important as it is at an arson scene."

Case study: The 2000 ISAG convention

In the summer of 2000, at the height of protests over the International Society of Animal Genetics (ISAG) conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a small group entered the McDonald's at 2400 Nicollet Ave. S., made some noise, threw some milky-looking, stinky-smelling fluid contained in baby food jars and ran out.

On a small scale, it triggered the kind of response the city is bracing for in a terrorist attack.

Some dismiss the McDonald's incident as a stink bomb or a hoax. Deputy Fire Chief Ulysses Seal, one of the first on the scene, said the liquid included low levels of cyanide and a still-unknown biological agent.

Seal gave an insiders' view of the situation during a Dec. 10 Weapons of Mass Destruction training for firefighters. It showed how emergency responders think in a crisis and the lessons they learned.

According to Seal's presentation and a follow-up interview:

After the McDonald's 911 call came in, Seal worried about a diversion and didn't want to strip resources from Downtown. Emergency personnel kept response low-key, communicating by cell phones instead of radios.

A fire engine arrived at McDonald's five minutes after the 911 call. The captain found the restaurant half-filled with people eating. She poked her head inside, "smelled the smell," and decided to evacuate the restaurant right away.

The McDonald's staff had already begun cleaning the fluid -- one worker tried to hand the captain a jar. Not wanting to touch the jar, the captain told the employee to put it down. However, the employee wasn't feeling well and touched the captain, potentially spreading contamination.

Both went outside, used water cans to wash the material off and waited for HAZMAT, the hazardous materials experts.

Seal arrived shortly after the first engine and tested the material, getting a positive reaction for cyanide, 5 parts per million. He tested it a second time with the same result. He then called the testing company in Pittsburgh to confirm he had done the test correctly.

Unanticipated issues emerged. Some problems needed snap judgments.

After the evacuation, the restaurant manager told firefighters if they didn't go back inside and turn off the griddles and deep fat fryers soon, they would have a fire risk.

Emergency responders had to decide whether to run McDonald's heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system or turn it off. In some circumstances, running such systems spreads contaminants outside, a bad move. In this case, they let it run to disperse any cyanide gas.

They struggled to keep a safety perimeter. At one point, a car got through security lines and went to the drive-up window. "They were bound and determined to get something to eat," Seal said.

During the incident, Seal got a call from the Emergency Operations Center: Protesters were rolling baby food jars at police Downtown. Seal said no one should touch them and they should set up a 50- to 60-foot perimeter around them.

It was too late. One officer had picked up a poorly sealed container, and the person was brought to 24th and Nicollet.

Seal even had a phone argument with an FBI official. The official wanted the city to ship all the contaminated samples to its facility in Quantico as crime scene evidence. Seal wanted to keep at least one sample.

"I wanted to get testing done right away," he said. "People at McDonald's and one of my employees had exposure."

Emergency responders would later learn the milky fluid not only had cyanide, but an unknown biological agent. Seal said the McDonald's case is still open and the FBI has not told him what the biological agent is.

Seal told the class that the biggest lesson learned was that multiple hazards could be present in a single incident and even if they got a positive hit for one toxin, such as cyanide, they needed to keep testing.